Schools of Buddhism
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Schools of Buddhism
Map showing the three major Buddhist divisions
Percentage of Buddhists by country, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Schools of Buddhism are the various institutional and doctrinal divisions of Buddhism that have existed from ancient times up to the present. The classification and nature of various doctrinal, philosophical or cultural facets of the schools of Buddhism is vague and has been interpreted in many different ways, often due to the sheer number (perhaps thousands) of different sects, subsects, movements, etc. that have made up or currently make up the whole of Buddhist traditions. The sectarian and conceptual divisions of Buddhist thought are part of the modern framework of Buddhist studies, as well as comparative religion in Asia.

From a largely English-language standpoint, and to some extent in most of Western academia, Buddhism is separated into two groups at its foundation: Therav?da, literally "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching," and Mah?y?na, literally the "Great Vehicle." The most common classification among scholars is threefold, with Mah?y?na itself split between the traditional Mah?y?na teachings, and the Vajray?na teachings which emphasize esotericism.


The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion distinguishes three types of classification of Buddhism, separated into "Movements", "Nik?yas" and "Doctrinal schools":[clarification needed]


The terminology for the major divisions of Buddhism can be confusing, as Buddhism is variously divided by scholars and practitioners according to geographic, historical, and philosophical criteria, with different terms often being used in different contexts. The following terms may be encountered in descriptions of the major Buddhist divisions:

"Conservative Buddhism"
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
"Early Buddhist schools"
the schools into which Buddhism became divided in its first few centuries; only one of these survives as an independent school, Therav?da
"East Asian Buddhism"
a term used by scholars[1] to cover the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Korea, and most of China and Southeast Asia
"Eastern Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[2][page needed] for East Asian Buddhism; also sometimes used to refer to all traditional forms of Buddhism, as distinct from Western(ized) forms.
"Ekay?na (one yana)
Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra sought to unite all the different teachings into a single great way. These texts serve as the inspiration for using the term Ekay?na in the sense of "one vehicle". This "one vehicle" became a key aspect of the doctrines and practices of Tiantai and Tendai Buddhist sects, which subsequently influenced Chán and Zen doctrines and practices. In Japan, the one-vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra also inspired the formation of the Nichiren sect.
"Esoteric Buddhism"
usually considered synonymous with "Vajray?na".[3] Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Therav?da, particularly in Cambodia.[4][page needed]
literally meaning "lesser vehicle." It is considered a controversial term when applied by the Mah?y?na to mistakenly refer to the Therav?da school, and as such is widely viewed as condescending and pejorative.[5] Moreover, H?nay?na refers to the now non extant schools with limited set of views, practices and results, prior to the development of the Mah?y?na traditions. The term is currently most often used as a way of describing a stage on the path in Tibetan Buddhism, but is often mistakenly confused with the contemporary Therav?da tradition, which is far more complex, diversified and profound, than the literal and limiting definition attributed to H?nay?na .[6] Its use in scholarly publications is now also considered controversial.[7]
an old term, still sometimes used, synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism; widely considered derogatory.
a movement that emerged from early Buddhist schools, together with its later descendants, East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. Vajray?na traditions are sometimes listed separately. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels,[8][page needed] regardless of school.
"Mainstream Buddhism"
a term used by some scholars for the early Buddhist schools.
usually considered synonymous with "Vajray?na".[9] The Tendai school in Japan has been described as influenced by Mantrayana.[8][page needed]
"Newar Buddhism"
a non-monastic, caste based Buddhism with patrilineal descent and Sanskrit texts.
"Nik?ya Buddhism" or "schools"
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
"Northern Buddhism"
an alternative term used by some scholars[2][page needed] for Tibetan Buddhism. Also, an older term still sometimes used to encompass both East Asian and Tibetan traditions. It has even been used to refer to East Asian Buddhism alone, without Tibetan Buddhism.
"Secret Mantra"
an alternative rendering of Mantray?na, a more literal translation of the term used by schools in Tibetan Buddhism when referring to themselves.[10]
"Sectarian Buddhism"
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
"Southeast Asian Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[11][page needed] for Therav?da.
"Southern Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[2][page needed] for Therav?da.
an alternative term sometimes used for the early Buddhist schools.
"Tantray?na" or "Tantric Buddhism"
usually considered synonymous with "Vajray?na".[9] However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including ?ravakay?na, Mah?y?na and Vajray?na texts[12] (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars[13][page needed], particularly François Bizot,[14] have used the term "Tantric Theravada" to refer to certain practices found particularly in Cambodia.
the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, China, India, and Malaysia. It is the only surviving representative of the historical early Buddhist schools. The term "Therav?da" is also sometimes used to refer to all the early Buddhist schools.[15]
"Tibetan Buddhism"
usually understood as including the Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of China, India and Russia, which follow the Tibetan tradition.
a movement that developed out of Indian Mah?y?na, together with its later descendants. There is some disagreement on exactly which traditions fall into this category. Tibetan Buddhism is universally recognized as falling under this heading; many also include the Japanese Shingon school. Some scholars[16][page needed] also apply the term to the Korean milgyo tradition, which is not a separate school. One scholar says, "Despite the efforts of generations of Buddhist thinkers, it remains exceedingly difficult to identify precisely what it is that sets the Vajrayana apart."[17]

Early schools

Map of the major geographical centers of Sectarian Buddhist schools in India. Sarv?stiv?da (red), Therav?da (orange), Mah?sghika (yellow), Pudgalav?da (green), and Dharmaguptaka (gray).
An image of Gautama Buddha with a swastika, a traditional Buddhist symbol of infinity, on his chest. Ananda, the Buddha's disciple, appears in the background. This statue is from Hsi Lai Temple.

Twenty sects

Sthavirav?da split into 11 sects:

 Sthavirav?da-+- Haimavata--------------------------------------------
              +- Sarv?stiv?din-+-----------------------------------
                               + Vats?putr?ya -+--------------------
                               |               + Dharmottara-------
                               |               + Bhadray?n?ya-----
                               |               + Sammitiya--------
                               |               + Channagirika-----
                               + Mahsaka-+---------------------
                               |            + Dharmaguptaka------
                               + Kyap?ya------------------------
                               + Sautr?ntika----------------------

Mah?sghika split into 9 sects:

             + Ekavyah?rika         + Caitika
             + Lokottarav?din       + Apara?aila
             + Kaukkutika           + Uttara?aila
             + Bahu?rut?ya
             + Prajñaptiv?da

Influences on East Asian schools

The following later schools used the vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka:

The following involve philosophical influence:

Therav?da subschools

The different schools in Therav?da often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the P?li canon and the later commentaries, or differ in the focus on and recommended way of practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the vinaya.

Mah?y?na schools

Esoteric schools

Subcategorised according to predecessors

New Buddhist movements

See also


  1. ^ B & G, Gethin, R & J, P & K
  2. ^ a b c Penguin, Harvey
  3. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan, New York, volume 2, page 440
  4. ^ Indian Insights, Luzac, London, 1997
  5. ^ "Hinayana (literally, 'inferior way') is a polemical term, which self-described Mah?y?na (literally, 'great way') Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents", p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  6. ^ Ray, Reginald A (2000) Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, p.240
  7. ^ "The supposed Mahayana-Hinayana dichotomy is so prevalent in Buddhist literature that it has yet fully to loosen its hold over scholarly representations of the religion", p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  8. ^ a b '
  9. ^ a b Harvey, pages 153ff
  10. ^ Hopkins, Jeffrey (1985) The Ultimate Deity in Action Tantra and Jung's Warning against Identifying with the Deity Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 5, (1985), pp. 159-172
  11. ^ R & J, P & K
  12. ^ Skilling, Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, page 78
  13. ^ Indian Insights, loc. cit.
  14. ^ Crosby, Kate( 2000)Tantric Theravada: A bibliographic essay on the writings of François Bizot and others on the yogvacara Tradition. In Contemporary Buddhism, 1:2, 141-198[1]
  15. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pages 440f; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism
  16. ^ Harvey
  17. ^ Lopez, Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995, page 6
  18. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-05-28. Retrieved ..

Further reading

External links

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